Whether it is to help humans build automobiles on a production line or assemble intricate parts at a family-run business, cobots or collaborative robots represent a paradigm shift not only in automation but also in work dynamics. Article by Andie Zhang, ABB.
Collaborative robots (cobots) have been changing the rules of the industrial world over the past decade. With sensors and built-in safety functions, these dexterous industrial robots can work safely alongside humans, enabling greater flexibility in a wide range of industries around the world.
Technologies can make any connected industrial robot a collaborative one, which allow the cobots to be installed without the need for physical barriers such as fences and cages that have traditionally been a requirement for generations of industrial robots. Working with collaborative robots is more than just the robot themselves. It is about the application which can take place at many levels, with incremental benefits at each.
One such way is the ability for cobot to co-exist safely with humans on the same fenceless factory floor, which significantly reduces the space taken up by the robot. The feature is ideal for applications like palletising where the robot can maximise productivity without compromising on safety.
Another way cobots can maximise flexibility and efficiency is by synchronised collaboration where the human and the robot work together in a planned but more intermittent manner, for tasks such as machine tending that require some amount of human interaction along with the robot’s speed and precision. Finally, the highest level of collaboration is for the robot and human to co-operate with each other to share workspaces and tasks continuously. This is especially useful for small parts assembly lines.
Collaborative robots also provide manufacturers with the flexibility to manage the shift to low-volume/high-mix production. Collaborative robots add agility to change between products and introduce new products faster. The people on the production line contribute their unique problem-solving capabilities, insights and adaptability to change, while robots bring tireless precision and endurance for repetitive tasks.
Going Large By Going Small
The global market for collaborative robots is estimated to be valued at US$12.3 billion by 2025, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 50 percent, according to research firm Markets and Markets.
But where is that potential stemming from? One key driver for growth is the development of collaborative robots for workplaces outside large manufacturing environments. While robotic automation technology has evolved significantly over the years to meet the growing demands for high volume industrial production, it has also evolved to create smaller collaborative robots such as ABB’s YuMi, which is designed to fit easily into existing production lines to increase productivity while working safely alongside people.
The inherent qualities of collaborative robots make them ideal automation solutions that can be game changers for smaller manufacturers by helping them boost productivity, reduce operating costs and even improve the safety and retention rate of employees. At the outset, collaborative robot installation is far cheaper than large industrial ones because of their smaller size and fewer peripheral equipment. This means that the investment needed for a robotic work cell can go down from over US$200,000 to under US$50,000.
Robots That Create Better Work Environment
Another attractive proposition to make the case for cobots is the lack of labour that is prevalent in most markets. The current generation of working people who have grown up in the digital world, are more qualified than their predecessors and do not want to spend hours performing dirty, dull, dangerous and repetitive tasks such as picking and placing products from bins, tending to machines or packaging finished goods. Also, with shorter product lifecycles, small manufacturers who operate in high labour cost countries and are closer to their end customers cannot simply outsource labour to low-cost countries like large corporations do. In these conditions, collaborative robots are ideal as they not only reduce the need for manual labour, but can work tirelessly and with higher quality, allowing their human co-workers to perform more stimulating work that can lead to higher job satisfaction.
By automating monotonous and often more tasking jobs, manufacturers can also improve the safety of their employees. For instance, Anodica, an Italian family-run business that makes high-end metal handles, knobs and trimmings for appliance and automotive industries use YuMi to assemble their products together with an operator. The robot cell was designed anthropometrically around the operator so that all activities are ergonomically managed. By doing this, the company helps employees avoid short- and long-term injuries related to working in a factory.
Hit The Ground Running
In the past, setting up an industrial robot could take days if not weeks, disrupting ongoing work that can lead to bottlenecks in production. On the contrary, the plug-and-play qualities of modern cobots such as the YuMi means that they can be installed much more quickly, leading to minimal interference with production processes. Also, their small footprint and features that make them easily movable make cobots suitable for automating existing production lines.
Technological advancements have made collaborative robots far more intuitive than their conventional counterparts. Features such as lead-through programming and user-friendly touch screen interface allow operators with no programming experience to quickly program the robot. Software simulation tools such as RobotStudio offered by ABB allows operators to program the robot and simulate the application on a computer without shutting down production. This helps speed up the time taken to get the robot running, which is especially useful for organisations that have short product cycles. Moreover, digital twin technology can be used to develop a complete and operational virtual representation of a robot on which diagnostics, prediction and simulation can be run to optimise the machine even before it is set up.
Full Flexibility For All
Robotic automation in the traditional sense can be challenging for small manufacturers who make high-mix, low-volume products. Collaborative robots, which are more dexterous than fixed automation, offer much-needed flexibility to production. Their lightweight and easy-to-use features means cobots can be moved around a factory floor to perform different tasks.
Today, large corporations are also enjoying the benefits of cobots being able to work in close proximity with humans. For example, the automotive industry, which has a high degree of automation in areas like the body shop and paint shop, can use cobots to automate the final trim and assembly of vehicles. Here, the robots work closely with humans who add finishing touches to the vehicle while robots perform more repetitive tasks.
Suppliers to the automotive industry, like France-based Faurecia Group, which makes interior components, are also using collaborative robots like ABB’s YuMi to maintain flexibility and increase productivity at their plant in Caligny.
Where From Here?
The future of collaborative robotics lies in developing enhanced software features such as cloud connectivity and machine learning that increase their functionalities and make them even safer and easier to use. Software features like ABB’s SafeMove2 ensure that industrial robots are also able to work collaboratively and safety with humans, while QuickMove and TrueMove guarantee superior motion control. Adding more intelligence to robots through artificial intelligence will take the advantages of collaborative robotic automation to the next level.
Whether it is to help humans build automobiles on a production line or assemble intricate parts at a family-run business, collaborative robots represent a paradigm shift not only in automation but also in work dynamics.
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